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Getting a Big Lift on the Space Coast

By Gary McKechnie and Nancy Howell
The Washington Post
Sunday, December 20, 1998; Page E02

In the face of recent media coverage this may be hard to believe, but people actually travel to Florida's Space Coast even when John Glenn isn't hitching a ride on the shuttle.

Granted, the Kennedy Space Center has earned bragging rights as the area's top attraction, but there's much more to experience along this 72-mile stretch of Florida's mid-Atlantic coastline. Whether you target the area as a primary destination or tack it onto a trip to Disney World or a Caribbean cruise, you can easily fill a long weekend learning about Florida's past, present and future.

In 1865, Jules Verne envisioned Central Florida as the world's portal into space in his classic "From the Earth to the Moon." Not bad, but Verne failed to predict that the coast would also boast kayak rentals, restaurants serving gator tail, and surfers descending on Cocoa Beach, the "Small Wave Capital of the World."

To wring the most out of the coast, plan on a manageable two-day visit that allows time for the beach, eco-tours and the mandatory visit to the Kennedy Space Center, the obvious starting point.

Although much of the KSC tour is free (including parking, the visitors center, select movies and a Harrods-size gift shop featuring a $25,000 meteorite), most tourists opt for bus tours that allow you to disembark and reboard at your leisure. Plan extra time for the Apollo/Saturn V Center, where you'll find two of America's most exhilarating presentations.

In the Firing Room Theater, the simulation of the Apollo VIII launch will pull you into the drama of the program's first manned mission. "This re-creates the emotion of the launch for kids who weren't alive then and reminds parents and grandparents of the experience," says spokeswoman Melissa Tomasso. The narrative is especially stirring.

The Firing Room room contains the actual launch control consoles from 1968, which initiate a ground-shaking, window-rattling liftoff (look for the half-empty packs of Old Gold and Chesterfield cigarettes). The grand finale here is really the tears of adults and applause of kids who feel they've witnessed the real thing.

The Lunar Theater eliminates the need of a disaster to illustrate the dangers of space travel. Using Apollo XI's recordings as a foundation, the show re-creates the drama of July 20, 1969--and reminds us that Armstrong and Aldrin landed with only seconds of fuel left. The boo-hoo scale goes into overdrive in a film clip when a kid notes that astronauts are "finding new stars and new planets and new galaxies and I think it's trying to tell us something."

"What's it trying to tell us?" asks the interviewer.

"That we belong up there with them."

If you're not spaced out, six miles from the KSC entrance is the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame, which houses the world's largest collection of astronaut memorabilia. A $4 million expansion added a simulated moon walk, a chance to land the space shuttle via a video screen, and a contraption in which you can pull 4 G's. Less strenuous highlights include Gus Grissom's Mercury spacesuit, the Apollo XIV capsule (courtesy Alan Shepard), Gordon Cooper's Mercury capsule and a recently added John Glenn exhibit showcasing his early aviation notebooks and military memorabilia.

Considering there's an abundance of Atlantic Coast to cover, reserve at least half a day for the beach. South of Port Canaveral is 57 miles of unbroken shoreline, but most tourists (and locals) choose Cocoa Beach for its sand and access to nearby convenience stores and hotels. Within a mile north or several miles south of A1A and Highway 520, you'll find plenty of room to spread out a blanket, swab on the Coppertone and bask beneath the sun.

The largest eco offering is the 140,000-acre Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, home to manatees, bald eagles, bobcats, 5,000 alligators and 330 species of migratory birds. It also is site of the greatest concentration of loggerhead sea turtle nesting sites in the United States. If you really want to see what Florida was like before the advent of tourism, you can get a closer look at the area's ecosystem via a wide-body kayak excursion. Although there's no challenging whitewater in sight, paddling out to mangrove islands weighted down with white egrets, brown pelicans and roseate spoonbills is a purely Florida experience.

A 1,000-foot fishing pier is the centerpiece of Jetty Park, a popular spot for people who want to do absolutely nothing except kick back and land snapper, snook and redfish. To prolong the ecstasy, there's a grocery store, gift shop and neighboring tent and trailer campground, as well as bicycle and fishing gear rentals.

All of which you can read about in the very rare Jules Verne tome, "Fishing With the Big Kahuna."

* Kennedy Space Center, 407-452-2121 or 1-800-KSC-INFO (Florida only), Bus tours are $14 for adults, $10 for kids--add one Imax movie and prices rise to $19 for adults, $15 for kids).

* U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame, 407-269-6100, $13.95 adults, $9.95 children.

* Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, 407-861-0667.

* Jetty Park, 407-783-7111.

* For more information, contact the Space Coast Office of Tourism, 407-868-1126, 1-800-872-1969 or 1-800-93-OCEAN. For a list of cruise lines that sail out of Port Canaveral, call your travel agent or the Canaveral Port Authority, 407-783-7831.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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